I Love You Errol Morris. (You too, Banksy.)

Mar 7
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Am I missing something? Wasn’t Exit Through the Gift Shop the best movie of the year?

Errol Morris would think so.  Unfortunately, that might be as close as we get to a review of this movie from him — a real shame given the way the film’s themes overlap with the work Errol Morris has done over the 30 years.

If you’ve never heard of Errol Morris, today’s your lucky day. Here’s a quick overview of his career, just to bring you up to speed:

  • Image copyright jkottke via flickr

    Image copyright jkottke via flickr

    His first film, Gates of Heaven, about pet cemeteries, pioneered a form of documentary driven entirely by interviews.  Werner Herzog told Morris that if he could get a documentary about pet cemeteries released, he’d eat his shoe.  He did, and he did.  Not only did he get the film released, it so impressed Roger Ebert that to this day it occupies slot #6 in his list of the greatest movies of all time!

  • The Thin Blue Line, Morris’s second film, essentially invented the dramatic reconstruction, which needless to say changed documentary making and telejournalism forever.  Not only that, the film led to <mild spoiler> the overturning of an unjust verdict and the freeing of an innocent man. </spoiler>
  • In 1989, Morris won a MacArthur Genius grant.
  • Morris invented the Interrotron (at right), a variation on the teleprompter that allows an interviewer to make direct eye contact with an interviewee while the interviewee is looking directly into the camera.
  • He won an Oscar in 1994 for The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara — this is one among a handful of other awards.
  • He writes a column for the New York Times, which also appears on their website under the name Zoom Blog — “zoom” as in cameras, not as in Mazda.

It’s this blog that gives us perhaps the greatest insight into the way Morris thinks, the things that interest him and keep him up at night.  I cannot recommend highly enough going back through the archives; there are not more than a dozen or so essays, but the ones that are there are fantastic — very in-depth and well-researched, and covering a fascinating array of topics, including the brain-damage of a sitting US president, recreations of frontier-cabin furniture arrangements, Civil War propaganda and profiteering, forgery in photojournalism, and many other things besides.

Perhaps my favourite among all his essays are a lengthy bit on how a stunningly shitty forged Vermeer was able to fool art experts of the time by appealing to their racist biases, and an amazing investigation of two photos to come out of the Crimean War.  The two photos are identical in almost every way — a landscape littered with cannon balls — with one important difference: in one photo, there are cannonballs all over the road, and in the other, there are none.  Morris becomes obsessed with figuring out which picture was taken first; did the photographer place the cannonballs on the road and then take a picture, essentially staging the photo?  If so, why?  Morris plunges into the photographer’s diaries for clues, takes the photos to analysts to determine the angle of the sun, even visits the location to see if there are any additional clues, but it all leads to nothing.  Just when you’ve given up on ever finding out if the photo was staged or not, there is an answer — a convincing and definitive one.

The thing that links all these essays is a question, one that reappears in different ways as he explores different topics: what is the relationship between photography and truth?  How is meaning imparted through imagery?  Is there such a thing as objective documentation?  Are all images misleading, even if unintentionally?  These subjects are explored implicitly in his documentaries as well, to a greater or lesser degree; Standard Operating Procedure, to name just one example, looked at the women who took the incriminating photos leaked from Abu Ghraib, documenting abuse of detainees.  He interviews these women directly, asking why they documented these abuses, and noting that the people who exposed the abuse have been punished, but the people who committed them have not (raising questions of when proof itself can be criminal).  Morris’s career-long examination of photography and imagery, truth and deception, prejudice and objectivity, and the interplay between them all is a little too broad to cover in a single story.

All of those topics, however, come together in Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy’s Oscar-nominated documentary about street art, and specifically the trajectory of one man from Thierry Guetta into Mr. Brainwash.  I would be surprised if Morris and Banksy see eye to eye about a lot of things, but Exit Through the Gift Shop demonstrates that they share a common obsession.

Morris, after all, is above and beyond a documentarian, and despite his stated belief that images lie, he struggles to find objectivity, or at least as accurate a portrayal of reality as possible.  Banksy, on the other hand, is an artist, and not just an artist — he’s an extremely political one, an iconoclastic one, and above all, a subversive one.  His art, in the beginning, at least, was really graffiti: the art itself was illegal.  Consider too that Banksy’s identity remains secret to this day, for reasons that have as much to do with marketing as with self-protection, in all likelihood.  Banksy, as much as Morris, is a person whose career is defined not by statements but by questions: who is he?  Why doesn’t he make his identity public?  But also: can you really consider yourself an outsider when you’ve been nominated for an Oscar?  Can you claim to subvert the established art world when you hold ticketed gallery openings attended by celebrities?  How can your championing of street art be reconciled with the fact that your works have sold for up to £100,000?  Is it still selling out if you openly acknowledge this paradox?  Exit is really about all these things.

Forgery is a subject that appears frequently in Morris’s writing as he explores the reasons why people do it, how it operates, why we allow ourselves to be duped.  Banksy — as he portrays in the autobiographical moments of his film — forged and released £10 notes with his name and a picture of Princess Di.  Both are really asking the same question: what is authenticity?  Is an object or image’s authenticity something that exists outside of our interpretation of it, or is it something we imbue or confer when we contemplate it?

You could ask the same questions about Exit Through the Gift Shop as a whole.  Critics accused the film of being a hoax, or at least a prank perpetrated on the art world.  Think of it this way: is Mr. Brainwash a “real” artist, or is Mr. Brainwash a living work of art created by Banksy?  Couldn’t Banksy, as a subversive, puckish artist intent on subverting the art world, unleash a creation like Mr. Brainwash in the same way he unleashed his forged £10 notes?  The Dadaists tried to undermine and redefine art by quite literally signing their names to pieces of garbage.  Here, perhaps, Banksy is doing the same, releasing a documentary about street art that’s actually made by the artist about the documentarian — the filmmaker and the artist swapped tools and out came an art show and a film, and the success of one hinges on the failure of the other.  Commercialism plays a huge part here (cf. the title), and we’re forced to ask ourselves why success affects our ideas of artistic integrity and the real value of art.  I mean here both Banksy’s success with art critics and non-critics alike, as well as Mr. Brainwash’s success with the tasteless hoi-polloi portrayed so unflatteringly in the film.

Allegations of a hoax continue to swirl; even Google suggests “hoax” halfway through typing the second word of the title into the search bar.  Jeannette Catsoulis at the NYT said it’s “a film that looks like a documentary but feels like a monumental con …. Exit could be a new subgenre: the prankumentary.”  Ty Burr at the Boston Globe wrote “Some people have wondered who the joke’s on in this movie. That would be everybody, including Banksy himself …. For his part, Banksy clearly understands the cosmic joke of it all, but he’s still appalled — and he knows that makes the joke even funnier.  Is the movie itself a put-on?”

Exit demands that its audience ask itself these questions.  Is this just a narrative constructed from pieces of reality?  Is the whole thing “true,” or is it staged, or forged — and if it’s staged, does that make it less true?  Are Banksy’s artworks — his street art, and the film and his gallery works — reconcilable in the teeth of the ideology they express?  The filmmakers attributed alongside Banksy are on the record saying the film depicts only real events, although that only gets us halfway to the truth.  Banksy never works alone; he recruits accomplices — is Mr. Brainwash one of them?  Is he a dupe as well?  Is it really a coincidence that a figure seemingly custom-built to satirize the archetypes of mindless art consumers and shallow, derivative artists should blithely call himself “Mr. Brainwash?”

Exit Through the Gift Shop doesn’t get more interesting if you can provide concrete answers to these questions.  The frisson between what we see, what we know, and what we know we don’t know are what drive the film. The movie succeeds best as a puzzle.  Anyway, these are questions we can never answer — as Errol Morris well knows, and has written about at length, the meaning of a photo or a painting or a strip of film is not something inherent in the piece of paper or celluloid or canvas, but something inherent in us.  When we supply the meaning, we only see half the story.

Click here for more posts about moving images, and here for more post on written words.

4 Comments

  • David Dick-Agnew says:

    Not to make a habit of posting on my own stuff all the time, but ….

    I remember the marketing for this movie, and what I was expecting when I went into the theatre was a straightforward documentary of street art. The whole Mr. Brainwash story was never hinted at — something of a bait and switch.

    It’s fascinating that this movie came out around the same time as Catfish, another movie that kept a great deal of its subject matter secret and was also accused of being a hoax. I wonder if there’s a connexion there?

  • Brian E. says:

    I liked all the art stuff.

    ;)

    Seriously though, like Catfish I both loved and hated the “Is it real?” question. Or more accurately “How much is real?”. I love both films’ ability to create the question so convincingly. Really, only Banksy and those most closely involved and Nev Shulman and those most closely invovled know the truth. But a huge part of me WANTS them to be straight up real in how they present it. I think that part of me would hate to know that any of it was faked or scripted etc.

    And I HATE that about me :)

  • David Dick-Agnew says:

    It is sort of silly …. Holding things back is part of a documentery maker’s toolkit, and is why, as Morris emphasizes often, you have to keep everything in context, and ask yourself why this message is being sent.

    Outright staging things, fabricating “reality” is obviously deceptive, but leaving your reservations as a filmmaker unvoiced is just narrative. It means documentary will never be “reality,” but that’s exactly what Errol Morris, and Exit Through the Gift Shop, and to a lesser extent Catfish are all trying to say!

  • David Dick-Agnew says:

    Maybe a better example would be Borat. We all knew that was staged, to a certain extent. Obviously Borat is not a documentary. But how many of the other people were “in on it”? Were the innkeepers? His stripper friend? Pamela Anderson?

    I think a lot of the humour (in the case of Borat) comes from our believe that the marks are oblivious to the fact that the situations are staged — if we suspected their reactions were scripted, and not genuine, it would lessen the comedy.

    In Catfish and ETTGS, it’s not being played for laughs, but for provocation. How provocative it is definitely hinges on whether we think it’s a prank, or if it is, who’s the mark? The people in the movie? Us?

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